India Makes Headway in Goal to Install Taps in Rural Households

NEW DELHI — Until a few months ago, Babli Devi used to walk half an hour from her house in Kunsal village in North India to draw water from a community water tap several times a day for her daily washing and cooking.

“I used to go in the morning, afternoon and evening, making two or three trips. Other family members also helped,” said Devi, who spent about three hours a day in that grueling routine.

It was the same story in other homes in the village. “Collecting water was as good as putting in a day’s work,” according to Biri Lal. 

Villagers across India have long been accustomed to that arduous trek — until five years ago only one in six of India’s 200 million households in its vast rural areas had access to a tap in their homes.

But an ambitious $50 billion nationwide program launched by the federal government in 2019 to provide a tap to all rural houses has eased the daily burden of gathering water for many like Devi. 

A tap was installed in every home in her village in Himachal Pradesh state under the program several months ago. “I get some time to rest now after I finish my household chores,” she says. 

Now nearly three in four rural homes in the country have been given access to a tap in their households, according to government figures. 

The task has been challenging in one of the world’s most water-stressed countries. India has 18% of the world’s population but only 4% of the world’s water resources. In a country dependent on four months of monsoon rains to recharge rivers and groundwater, acute shortages intensify in summer across urban and rural areas. 

That is why the progress of the drive has been uneven across the vast country. States like Himachal Pradesh where water resources are more abundant have fared better than others with almost all village homes getting taps.

Even here, reaching every village was not easy. In the hilly state, monsoons brought ample rains, but the water flew downstream creating shortages in summer. The winter season presented new problems.  

“The challenge was very big because we have very remote areas, we have areas with temperature up to minus 20 degrees centigrade, up to minus 35 degrees centigrade in remote, tribal areas, so this was a tough job,” said Suresh Mahajan, Chief Engineer, Water Department, Dharamshala. 

Now pipelines have been laid across the state, sometimes over vertical cliffs, to feed a network of storage tanks. Reservoirs and small dams have been built to retain water in areas where there is no reliable source. Huge tanks will be installed to avert shortages in the lean summer season. Engineers are also studying anti-freezing techniques to ensure availability of water all year round. 

The drive aims to not just provide a tap, but also potable water to every house according to Mahajan. Health experts have long called for improving access to clean water in a country where water-borne diseases like diarrhea lead to thousands of deaths. 

“We will provide 70 liters of potable water per person per day in every household. We can give more than this, not less,” according to Rakesh Sharma, at the Water Resources Department who oversees a storage and treatment plant that will supply about ten villages. 

Experts say that while the project is easier to implement in northern states, it faces challenges in parched areas that sprawl across western, eastern and southern India. 

“It is feasible in areas where ground water level is not so depleted like the Gangetic plains, but several states like Maharashtra and Karnataka that have a lot of arid and semi-arid areas will face problems,” according to Depinder Kapur at New Delhi’s Center for Science and Management. “Creating sustainable water sources in such places will be critical for the program’s success. Otherwise, you might have pipes, but no steady supply.” 

He points out that with ground water levels having depleted, villagers are having to walk further away from their habitations to fetch drinking water. Even big cities like Bengaluru are reporting huge water shortages. 

But the project is a boon for villagers in whose homes taps have been installed. Undergraduate student, Akshay Kumar in Kunsal, who used to share the work of filling water with his mother, now gets two more hours to study.

Rural households without water in their homes spent 55.8 million hours each day collecting water, according to a study by the World Health Organization. 

But experts say as piped water becomes available, authorities will also have to ensure its judicious use.  

Kumar, who knows the value of saving water after having struggled for years to fetch it from a distance, keeps a watchful eye in his village. “We don’t waste water and if I see someone’s tap is open, I shut it,” he said. 

Building a culture of water conservation will be key to ensuring that the boon of piped water for village communities remains sustainable and that taps don’t run dry.

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